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cheyenne_h on 01/17/2017 at 02:47PM

FMA Q&A: Australian Radio Producer Michael Schubert, Winner of National Features and Documentary Award

Michael with his National Features & Documentary trophy (+ FMA shirt!)

Every once in a while, we get a message about something special happening to tracks from the Free Music Archive. Recently, we heard from Michael Schubert, a radio producer whose work was nominated for Australia's National Features and Documentary Award. His work featured FMA audio prominently, so he wanted us to know about it. We love and deeply appreciate news of cool stuff happening with audio sourced from our little ol' archive. A few weeks later, we heard from him again - he won!

Michael has had a lifelong interest in audio, and is now Broadcast Manager at his local community radio station BayFM Byron Bay, which is also home to multiple award winning shows and documentaries, including his own, In Search Of Silence. He is also involved with the production of SoundMinds, a 15-minute weekly program that features the work of a university researcher in their own voice, and mindwaves, a program that "explores ideas, drawing from philosophy, psychology, sociology, biology and science in general; providing a point of intersection between these disciplines; creating an opportunity to cross over between different "ways of seeing".

You can listen to "In Search of Silence" below:

 

 

We followed up with Michael to find out more about his creative process and how the Free Music Archive factors into his work.

FMA: Can you give a quick overview of "In Search of Silence"?

MS: In Search of Silence is my personal project and my first venture into a longer form documentary. Being on radio and producing a documentary about silence seemed like the perfect match. In Search of Silence is a 30 minute documentary that does include radio silence (a suspenseful 8 seconds), as well as interviews with a conductor, movie sound producer and cognitive science hearing expert. I also got myself locked in an anechoic chamber and was honoured to be proclaimed winner of the National Features and Documentary Award 2016. The award recognises the value of such work and in a not for profit sector such as community radio, it is not an easy journey. It gives me the confidence to move forward on other projects in the future.

FMA: Why did you want to explore the theme of 'silence' for your audio documentary?

MS: In mindwaves earlier seasons I had taken on the concept of silence several times, each time finding new perspectives and new ideas.  And silence is such a juxtaposition to audio production.  On radio we call it "dead air" and avoid it.  To be honest, the fact that you can't really explain what silence is intrigued me, because it is realistically the absence of sound and does not "exist".  There's absolute zero for temperature, absolute zero for speed, but no absolute quiet. And the more you go down the rabbit hole of silence, the more perspectives there are.  When I started talking about the idea, no matter who I talked with, they got excited.  Not just musicians and sound engineers, but artists and accountants.  Everyone had an idea and everyone wanted to know what I might do with it.

FMA:  Did you learn anything new or interesting about silence while you were making the documentary?

MS: I keep coming back to something I know, but it still is a bit weird and freaky. There is no sound in your head. None.  Just electrical and chemical connections that we interpret as sound. There are sound waves in the world, but not in your head. It's a bit weird to contemplate, particularly when you talk to yourself. Who are you listening to?

FMA: What went into making "In Search of Silence"?

MS: I was used to doing a 15 minute piece, but 30 minutes is long, and if it's not interesting, it's really boring. That was my main challenge: getting the pace right. Silence is not in itself exciting, so the story had to be compelling. 

One day I drove 40 miles, flew 500 miles, caught a train to a university, got locked in the anechoic chamber and completed three interviews, flew back home and picked my own daughter up from university. That was huge, particularly when I realised I had not recorded my first session in the anechoic chamber (lesson: don't take new equipment to important gigs) and had to go back later in the same day. I realised later how lucky I was for and the generousity of essentially 'rock stars' in their own fields of research, conducting and film sound recording.

My main mentor was honest, really honest.  The first draft file was, to say the least, a bit underwhelming.  It was as he said, 'more about your script writing skills than the talent' and it had 'not delivered' on what he thought would be an interesting idea.  Good to hear about the script writing skills, but back to editing. With the help of another couple of mentors (sound and tech guys who listened to the entire piece) and armed with 5 pages of notes, I went to work.  And the deadline was real, the documentaries had a time booked to go to air.  Many hours listening to the same piece of audio, tweaking here and there.  And a very understanding family (including my wife as the 'voice of silence') who looked at my back as I edited for what seemed like  forever to them.  They are used to me getting SoundMinds done within a day. At one level it is all about the workflow and file management, boring I know. But if you just get a system that works for you, so you can find what you need (even if it is all in one huge folder, with backups), you are way ahead.  And don't try new things 'on the fly', just use what you know and ask lots of questions.  People are remarkably helpful.

>>Read more below, including Michael's Top Ten tips for audio documentaries!

FMA: You have a strong academic background, including study of biology, sociology and psychology. Do those interests intersect with your radio/broadcast work? How?

MS: My diverse academic background means that I have always had an interest in different ways of thinking, different ways of approaching a concept, issue or problem. I love the intersections, the meeting points where different ways of thinking come together. Those points are fascinating and full of interest to me. I learned as an academic to edit and communicate clearly, in a language for the audience at the time. Much of my working life was as a pscychotherapist, particularly using hypnotherapy, which is essentially storytelling. As a therapist I have to empathise or create a connection with a client, listen to their situation and envisage the transformation that they want or need. Then, within the hour I have to create a story that they can "step into", a narrative that agrees with their world view, that holds their attention and allows them to experience the new version of themselves "as if it were true." It's storytelling under pressure, a natural preparation for making radio documentaries, where you need to paint the entire picture in an engaging way for the audience.

FMA: Let's talk about some of your other audio projects. What are some of your favorite episodes of Sound Minds and mindwaves, and why?

MS: One of my first student pieces is still a favorite with me. It's called Jellyfish: Aliens, Assassins or Adventurers. It's got a lot to do with the researcher who is a San Diego born, Australian-based bundle of energy known as "Dr. Jellyfish," aka Lisa Gershwin PhD.  It was my first attempt to create a piece about academic research and Lisa is an ideal talent to interview. It's not perfect, recorded outdoors at the Byron Writers Festival, but that is part of the appeal - we just sat and talked.  That was the point I realised I liked to tell stories that don't get heard.

Another favourite is more recent Listen: Stop Doing So Much Work. It started out as an exploration of hearing research with the Director of The Hearing Hub at Macquarie University.  It was a case of going with the story that unfolded, for although Professor McAlpine started talking about hearing research, it ended up being about an approach to thinking before you do any research, and the value of reflection and thinking in new ways about research paradigms. He confuses many listeners with his statement that there is no sound in your head, just your brain's interpretation of signals produced by pressure currents in the atmosphere.

Mindwaves has had several incarnations, but the one I liked best (and was the hardest to do) was the series I did as a live to air presentation, with sound beds and layers of voice over, all the while juggling a complex topic and wanting to make it simple.  The pressure of doing it live was the challenge, and sometimes it worked better than others. I also had to speak in a way to be able to keep the flow when I edited out announcements and music tracks to give a consistent sounding podcast. And the truth is, these episodes are not perfect. That is the beauty of mindwaves, I can try and fail, then try it again 6 months or a year later and see if I can make it work. So to choose favourites, not because they are good, but because they taught me about creating a narrative is what I'll offer you.  One of my favorites is Zero: A Quest for Nothing. I am fascinated by 'things that are nothing, or the absence of something, like zero or shadows or silence.  Of course I had to balance that out with To Infinity and Beyond to see how far I could go.  And the greatest challenge is always to get the script written and source relevant musical content in one week, every week.

FMA: Do you have any exciting projects underway at the moment?

MS: Well, silence never ends.  I am still gathering material for another two documentaries In Search of Silence. I always intended to create a live performance and live-to-air piece from the work with Silence, so I am beginning the collaborative process to create a live feed event in several libraries, based on my silence work.  The other thing that excites me is encouraging other people, particularly young people to make short pieces suitable for broadcast and podcast, so I mentor a young group of radio makers at BayFM http://www.bam.org.auNext I'm thinking I want to tackle shadows, or zero. And my analogue (film based) photographer friends keep asking me about 'that radio series' I got them to agree to a couple of  years ago.  Time to get on the phone and make it happen.

FMA: How did you find out about the Free Music Archive, and why do you use it for your projects?

MS: Truth is I was searching on the internet for free to use music for backing my shows. Type in "free" and "music" and you are going to find FMA.  I didn't have the kind of music library that suited the creation of sound beds or backing a voice over.  FMA has it all, and I have my favourites, then I find new ones, usually by checking the "Related Artists" links on the musicians pages. The diversity and depth of talent is what is appealing. You can find what you want in the FMA, it is always there, and once you know your genres, it gets easier.  I realistically couldn't produce my work without the FMA, as it is pretty much second only to music composed and recorded specifically for your work.  And realistically it is better, as the music exists, and doesn't need multiple meetings and recording sessions to produce.  It is there for you to use and credit right now, even at 3:00 am when you really need it!

FMA: Did you know about Creative Commons before you knew about us?

MS: I did, but once I found the FMA I read more deeply into it. For the SoundMinds Radio project we made a clear decision that we wanted our program to be Creative Commons licensed and available to all. This means that the FMA is a perfect source of music for us.  For my own show, while my radio station pays for an extended license to use any music live to air or podcast, I prefer to support the independent creatives of FMA.

Creative Commons is essential in a marketplace dominated by legal labyrinths.  Being able to acknowledge (attribute) the work of the musician is essential for the musician. By using CC content when making a documentary, the documentary can also be CC licensed, which is a powerful incentive to use FMA talent.  By providing attribution it also allows for artists to be discovered, and for my part, I look forward to the day I get in touch with one of my favourite FMA artists to negotiate a fee for service on a project where we both get paid.

FMA: What advice would you give to others who want to produce audio documentaries?

MS: Here's my Top 10 Tips ...
1. It's all about the story.  And it is all about the listener's experience.
2. Make your concept and script relevant and engaging for the listener.
3. If you are going to interview, be professional and respectful.
4. When it comes to music, you need to have a knowledge of a range of artists, styles and temperaments that will suit your work.  Get familiar with the FMA catalogue, log in so you can record favorites to a list as you listen.
5. Get a mentor, it is the most valuable asset you can have.
6. Visit Transom http://transom.org/ for all the tips and tech as you develop your skill set.
7. Listen to Jessica Abel's "Out on the Wire" podcast www.jessicaabel.com
8. Most importantly, just make something to get you started.
9. You don't need the best gear to make a great piece of work, use what you have available.
10. Read point 1 frequently.

FMA: Do you want to give a shout out to any FMA artists in particular?

MS: Yes, definitely one of my favourite artists is Kai Engel, such a talented guy, with his sombre symphonic pieces. At the other end of the spectrum, I love Dave Krayb and his catchy tunes, and Alex Navarro and Alex Fitch's works.  There's Poddington Bear of course, always has something.  And Jon Luc Hefferman is a favourite go to composer. I tend to head to Electronic or Experimental at first when I am searching, and I look for artists who are similar as a guide to searching for new artists.Ask me in a year and I'll have added to the list.  The beauty of FMA is that you can always find something new, something interesting and my big advice is to log in and keep a record of music.  And contribute each year!

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